By Maria Saporta
The Atlanta Hawks organization has disbanded its “board of ambassadors” — a one-year-old coalition of business and civic leaders aimed at generating community support for the city’s professional basketball team.
The group – which included about three dozen leaders from all walks of life – was hoping to build stronger bridges between the business community and the Atlanta Hawks with the long-term goal of selling more season tickets, selling more corporate sponsorships and generating excitement in the team.
The 2014-2015 season has become mired in controversy for the past several months – during a time when the Atlanta Hawks need all the friends they can get.
The team’s problems went public during the summer when it was disclosed that Hawks General Manager Danny Ferry had made racially derogatory remarks in a telephone conversation with owners of the team. Shortly after Bruce Levenson, the managing owner of the team, admitted that he had written an email with racially-charged remarks about why there were so few white fans at Hawks games.
Because of the racial sensitivities within the National Basketball Association, Levenson said he would sell his share of the team.
Levenson later said he would first be hiring an investment banking firm to help coordinate the sale of the team, and the Goldman Sachs working with happened since the racially-insensitive comments came to light.
Meanwhile the Hawks Ambassador Force had been organized nearly six months before there had been the racial issues and the change of leadership at the team. It also had been formed before Steve Koonin, a former executive of Turner Broadcasting System, became CEO of the Atlanta Hawks. Ironically Koonin was one of the Hawks Ambassadors.
The decision to disband the Hawks Ambassadors was announced two days after Koonin had a meeting with about 500 season ticket holders and loyal fans of the club.
That was followed up with the following email on Oct 22:
IMPORTANT BOARD OF AMBASSADORS NEWS
Dear Board of Ambassadors,
At Monday night’s Town Hall, our members turned out in spectacular fashion, with more than 500 fans in attendance. Coach Bud, Dominique Wilkins and I fielded nearly an hour of questions covering a broad range of topics about the team and our organization. After, we spoke privately to the Ambassadors in attendance.
Like you, I joined the Board of Ambassadors because I believe in this team and I love the city of Atlanta. And I thank you for your ideas, energy and efforts over the past year. However, our company objectives and challenges have changed since the creation of this group.
While the Hawks are a community asset, brand building and strategy must come from within the organization. Internally, we must do the work to create the vision and implement a strategy to make us inclusive and relevant to fans, the community and businesses alike. We are committed to doing that work before we ask the same of others – you.
Part of our strategy moving forward will be the formation of a fan advisory council comprised of our most engaged and loyal members. This council will help shape our efforts and ensure that we over-deliver for both our current and future fans. I hope you will continue to support our team in the days and the weeks ahead as we build a world-class organization and team of which the city will be proud.
Should you have any questions, please do not hesitate to contact me or David Lee, our Senior Vice President of External Affairs.
The decision to disband the high-powered group of boosters caught the Hawks Ambassadors by surprise.
“The timing is odd,” said Clark Dean, a senior managing director and partner of the real estate firm Transwestern. “I just was really looking forward to seeing what
that group of people could do. The Atlanta Hawks team is an incredible asset to our community. The business community gets that. This is what brings cities together.’
Dean said the role of the Ambassadors was to strengthen ties beween the Hawks and the community.
“I thought it was a great idea,” Dean said, adding that he did not exactly understand why the Ambassadors were disbanded at this pivotal moment when the team was in such a state of flux. “Some people aren’t taking it as well as I am.”
Jeff Rosensweig, a business professor at Emory University’s Goizueta School of Business, had been a proud member of the Board of Ambassadors.
“To an economist, dismantling the Ambassadors seems odd: for little cost it could yield crucial benefits at a needed time,” Rosensweig wrote in an email. “The Ambassadors comprised a wonderfully diverse group of leaders. The diversity ranged across race, religion, sector of the economy, role in the community, and functional expertise of its members.”
Rosensweig went on to say that the new Hawks leadership (Steve Koonin) has a proven track record in marketing strategy.
“I could see a desire to focus the mission of the Ambassadors,” Rosensweig said. “However, losing such a community bridge may prove to be a self-inflicted wound.”
David Cumming, founder Atlanta Tech Village, became a Hawks Ambassador at the end of the last season. In that role, he brought in a host of entrepreneurs from Atlanta Tech Village to become better acquainted with the Atlanta Hawks and become more supportive of one of Atlanta’s top sports teams.
“I would have liked to have had a chance to get to know the team and the organization better,” Cumming said. “I wasn’t deeply ingrained, and I wasn’t that involved. I would have liked to have gotten to know the inner-workings better of the Atlanta Hawks.”
Dave Moody. founder of Moody Construction, said he enjoyed being a Hawks Ambassador, and he felt it was good for the team and the city
“I’m just going to have faith and trust in what they’re going to do next,” Moody said. “I have to assume they know a lot more about what they’re doing than I do.”
One of the key champions behind putting together the Hawks Ambassadors was Joel Katz, one of the nation’s top entertainment lawyers who is with the Atlanta office Greenberg Traurig.
Katz had no hard feelings about the Ambassadors being dismantled by Koonin, and he said he was sure Koonin was doing what he thought was best for the team.
“Everything I did was voluntary to be a good citizen of Atlanta,” Katz said. “I’m not upset about what they did at all.”
Less convinced was Bob Hope, a public relations executive who has specialized in sports and was a Hawks Ambassador.
“It’s an uncomfortable situation,” Hope said. “The Ambassadors were just getting off the ground. We had the organizational meeting just a year ago. I was stunned they decided to shut it down.”
Hope also said the timing was strange because Koonin had been urging Atlanta companies to become corporate sponsors of the Atlanta Hawks.
“I feel like they’re turning their back on the business community,” Hope said. “That’s how many of my `team members felt. They felt insulted. A lot of them had been trying to build support for the Hawks.”
Garin Narain, a spokesman for the Atlanta Hawks, said Koonin was not available to comment about the decision, saying the email speaks for itself.